A Lineage of Family Separation
59 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2021
Date Written: July 2021
Family separation is a practice rooted in U.S. history. In order to comprehensively examine the most recent execution of separating children from their parents under the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, one must follow and understand this history. That is what this Article does. Examining the separation histories of enslaved, Indigenous, and immigrant families, it offers critical context of a reoccurring practice that has had devastating effects largely on communities of color, and across generations. By contextualizing the separation of migrant families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border under zero tolerance, this Article identifies narratives from colonial times to the present that consistently rely on racism, xenophobia, and paternalism to justify a practice that otherwise is extreme in its inhumanity.
These justification narratives are juxtaposed with counter-stories that resist and challenge the separation of families, including by humanizing those impacted and articulating the profound harm it causes to children, parents, and communities. These stories have been told through first-hand narratives, Congressional testimonies, research studies, media reports, and facts and allegations in lawsuits. Narratives describing the harm caused by separating families are a powerful element of putting the practices to an end. The historical record suggests that these narratives have typically gained potency in specific socio-political contexts that rendered them compelling enough to overcome the justifications for specific family separation policies.
Although these practices were brought to an end, systemic reform has been elusive. In the case of Indigenous family separation, legislation enacted to cease the practice failed to bring about substantial change, and has been diluted by persistent legal challenges. Historical family separation practices against enslaved and immigrant families have been replaced with systems that separate families for prolonged times or permanently. These include the present-day U.S. criminal legal and immigration systems, where the government separates children from their parents on a substantial scale as a collateral consequence of mass incarceration and widespread detention and deportation, with little to no scrutiny. The outrage that ended zero tolerance has not extended to these ongoing examples of family separation. In order to meaningfully address these practices, counter-stories urging the valuation of family integrity must be aligned with a societal will to challenge systems that, through racialized justifications, continue to separate mostly marginalized children from their parents.
Keywords: Family Separation, Slavery, Indigenous Rights, Zero Tolerance, U.S. Immigration System, U.S. Criminal Legal System, Narratives
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